Tommy did not remember your name. But he certainly remembered that you changed his life.
As president of Governors State University, I recently hosted a luncheon to honor Tommy, our institution’s Lincoln Laureate. Every four-year university in Illinois, as you know from working at Joliet Junior College, selects its highest-achieving senior to be honored by the state in the context of Lincoln’s achievements. It’s our custom to ask each year’s Lincoln Laureate to invite favorite instructors and family members to congregate in our institution’s President’s Conference Room for an informal lunch and conversation.
Tommy shared his story with us. He was first in his family to attend college and started at Joliet Junior College before transferring to Governors State in his junior year. He decided to major in sociology, did work-study in the provost’s office, saved money to supplement a Lex fellowship in Madrid and conducted legal clinics with Global Brigades in Panama City. He considered law school but has instead applied to Ph.D. programs in sociology.
As he spoke to us, Tommy confessed that after high school, he expected little of himself. But then something happened. He took freshman composition with you. He told us that he didn’t know how to write until then. But your class changed him forever into a writer and critical thinker.
I hope that you see this letter, because Tommy is assuredly one of hundreds of students whose lives you have transformed. Indeed, I hope that English composition instructors everywhere read this letter to see the power of the course you teach to initiate students into intellectual life -- as many of their courses very likely do, as well. From his first experience in your classroom, Tommy has moved on to be, in the words of one of his references, “someone who I imagine will devote his life to public service, social justice and the betterment of humanity.”
It’s also important to note that Tommy’s understanding of writing as critical thinking and his initiation into a wider world occurred in his first semester at a community college. He described the course as reflecting research-based practices on the teaching of writing: drafting, peer review, reflection and revision. University professors at all types of four-year institutions should recognize the amazing work that goes on in community colleges, participate in academic collaborations and encourage their universities to forge partnerships that go far beyond articulation agreements.
Tommy’s story is another refutation of what I call the Maimon Hierarchical Fallacy. That is, too many in higher education believe that if I teach at a university and you teach in a community college, I must be smarter than you. It’s essential for the Tommys of this world that we recognize the impact of first-year courses, whether at community colleges or universities, and appropriately reward those who teach them.
Let me conclude by saying thank you for what you do every day to inspire students like Tommy to be articulate participants in our democracy.
President and professor of English
Governors State University